As the calendar flips to March, the horse racing world turns its attention to the first Saturday in May.
The road to the Kentucky Derby ramps up Saturday as two top contenders -- Brother Derek and First Samurai -- race, respectively, in the first of the major prep races: the $200,000 Santa Catalina Stakes in California and the $300,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes in Florida.
With Stevie Wonderboy, last year's 2-year-old champion, sidelined by injury, no 3-year-old has yet emerged as a dominant Derby favorite.
"I think it's a very, very deep group of 3-year-olds. You haven't seen the best of them," said Dan Hendricks, trainer of Brother Derek, the bay colt on top of several lists of prospects.
"I think it's a very deep, talented pool of horses and you're going to get good prices on them in the Derby. . . . I think it's six to eight deep right now," Hendricks told the media Tuesday.
Keeping in mind that last year at this time the eventual Derby winner (remember 50-1 Giacomo?) was a relatively unknown with a 1-for-5 lifetime record, here is a Derby dozen to keep an eye on (with starts, first, seconds, thirds, earnings and trainer).
Brother Derek (6:4-0-1, $592,080, Hendricks): Best of the West at moment. . . . Speedy winner of Hollywood Futurity in "racehorse time" of 1:42 for 1 1/1 6 miles. . . . Favored in Santa Catalina.
First Samurai (6:4-1-1, $712,575, Frank Brothers): Third in Breeders' Cup, second in 3-year-old debut. Stamina gets big test in Saturday's Fountain of Youth, his first test around two turns. . . . "If he improves like the good 2-year-olds to 3-year-olds, then I think he's got a chance [at the Derby]," Brothers said Tuesday. "He's done the right things, but . . . he's still got to go out there and do it."
Lawyer Ron (12:5-1-3, $440,008, Robert Holthus): King of South has chewed up competition in Louisiana and Arkansas. . . . Is son of Langfuhr, well-known to area fans as sire of 2003 Canadian Triple Crown winner Wando. . . . Rebel is next.
Private Vow (6:4-1-0, $382,508, Steve Asmussen): Broken rein ruined Breeders' Cup chances. . . . Showed good stretch kick over Churchill strip, winning November stakes. . . . Probably will launch 3-year-old campaign in Rebel.
Cause to Believe (8:5-3-0, $280,565, Jerry Hollendorfer): Won El Camino Real Derby in nice time (1:41 4/5 for 1 1/1 6 miles) for Northern California's perennial training king. . . . Son of Maria's Mon, sire of 2001 Derby winner Monarchos. . . . Next is California Derby.
Bluegrass Cat (5:4-0-0, $273,780, Todd Pletcher): Already won at 1 1/8 miles (Remsen at Aqueduct last fall) . . . Aiming for March 19 Tampa Bay Derby after winning a minor stakes at Tampa Bay on Feb. 18 . . . Great pedigree -- by Storm Cat out of an A.P. Indy mare.
Barbaro (4:4-0-0, $249,000, Michael Matz): Unbeaten son of Dynaformer, sire of nine millionaires, has won three times on grass and once on slop. . . . Florida Derby bound.
Bob and John (7:3-1-2, $200,070, Bob Baffert): Trainer called his 4 1/2 -length victory in 1 1/8 -mile Sham Stakes in fast time (1:49) "a paid workout." . . . March 18 San Felipe Stakes is next on road to Santa Anita Derby.
Keyed Entry (3:3-0-0, $132,000, Pletcher): Undefeated son of Honour and Glory was "fully extended" to beat First Samurai at 7 1/2 furlongs in slop. . . . Next stop is March 18 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
Steppenwolfer (6:3-1-1, $131,520, Daniel Peitz): Strong runner-up finish to Lawyer Ron in Oaklawn's Southwest Stakes moved him up a few notches.
Achilles of Troy (6:3-1-1, $128,577, Jennifer Pedersen): New York's finest has scorched earth in easy wins at Aqueduct, where he next tries the March 18 Gotham.
Corinthian (3:2-1-0, $54,880, James Jerkens): Looked strong winning a 1 1/8 -mile allowance race at Gulfstream in 1:49 3/5 . Repeat performance could win Fountain of Youth at a nice price.